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ITALIAN SANCTUARIES
from issue no. 12 - 2004

The sweet Madonna in lily-white marble


A Sacred Mount on a small scale, set apart on the west bank of the lake of Como. Here a deaf and dumb shepherdess came to graze her flock in the place which Pliny the Younger spoke of as the site in antiquity of the temple of Ceres. While looking at a statue of the Madonna and Child she miraculously regained the power of speech


by Giuseppe Frangi


The bell tower of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Succour in Ossuccio which offers a view of the magnificent landscape stretching from Bellagio to Varenna, as far as the Grigne and the first peaks of the Alps

The bell tower of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Succour in Ossuccio which offers a view of the magnificent landscape stretching from Bellagio to Varenna, as far as the Grigne and the first peaks of the Alps

A Sacred Mount on a small scale, set apart on the west bank of the lake of Como where the waters deepen fearfully to more than four hundred meters. Round about the landscape, soft and wild at the same time; unsettling yet welcoming, is enough to make one gasp. We are at Ossuccio, a place already known to the Pliny the Younger, who settled on the far bank. In a letter to the Como architect Mustius he wrote of a temple dedicated to Ceres, “which is set in the middle of the countryside”, fallen into decay despite attracting crowds: “On the ides of September a large crowd from all over the region gathers there; much business is done there, many votive offerings are received and given; but there is no shelter in the neighborhood from the rain and sun”.
The Romans liked the spot, as did Manzoni (who stayed in Villa Beccaria, a few kilometers from here) and as do Hollywood stars (the most recent being George Clooney). The strip of lake looks out on the Comacina island, the only one in the Lario area, the scene of fierce fighting over the centuries, between Lombards and Byzantines, Berengarius II and Otto I, the Milanese and Barbarossa.
But along with these scraps of major history should be counted an episode of minor history, one that has marked the destiny of this soil. It is the story of a deaf and dumb shepherdess who came to graze her flock in the place which Pliny the Younger indicated as the site in antiquity of the temple of Ceres. She found a statue of the Madonna and Child and immediately regained the power of speech. There is no precise date for the happening but the statue, which is still kept in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Succour, dates from the early fifteenth century and was carved in white marble taken from the local quarry of Musso. It is related that the faithful more than once removed the statue to the monastery of Isola, but that it miraculously returned to where it had been found. Hence in the early sixteenth century it was decided to build a church there to house the miraculous statue. The place is enough to take one’s breath away: 200 meters above the lake (and 419 above sea level), a view that stretches from Bellagio to Varenna, as far as the Grigne and the first peaks of the Alps. The first to speak of it fully was Feliciano Ninguarda, Bishop of Como, who came here on a pastoral visit in 1593. In the report of the visit he noted: “A mile and half of steep road”; and then went on to say: “First there was a capital with an image of the Holy Virgin that can still be seen, and because of some miracles of healing of the infirm it then grew into the form of a church all vaulted”.
The image is the same one pilgrims see today, in white marble, though it was once covered in gilding, as can be seen from the hem of the garments. Mary, in hieratic pose but full of sweetness, has the Child standing on her knees; together they hold in their right hands a rod in bloom, while with his left hand the Child grasps a little bird. Our Lady has a crown on her head: a particular key to the rest of the story.
In fact the crowned statue now functions as the fifteenth chapel in a series that starts a kilometer downhill: the other fourteen chapels with the Mysteries of the Rosary stand on the verge of a cobbled road that rises through mild curves in the shade of plane trees. At Ossuccio, in short, there is a replication, with less wealth of ornament, of the “philosophy” underlying the Sacred Mount of Varese. The road, the route of procession, is the backbone; the chapels on the sides punctuate the climb, evoking in statues and frescoes the object of the prayers of the faithful.
The site of the Sacred Mount is bound up with presence of Franciscan monks at Ossuccio also (still today the sanctuary is administered by the Capuchins of the Abbey of Acquafredda); in particular the designer of the project was a monk of northern origins, Timoteus Snider, who was clerk of the works for all of the forty years from 1645 and 1685. A portrait hanging in the shrine shows him with building plans in his hands, probably those of one of the fourteen chapels.
But mention of Friar Snider brings us to one of the key factors that enabled the existence of the Sacred Mount of Ossuccio. This was in fact an area that had intense traffic with north Europe and from which many people emigrated. The families of the slopes, being unable to survive on what the soil provided, set themselves to devising trades that brought in considerable wealth. There are stories of extraordinary enterprise uncovered by Lucia Pini who has studied the documents of the parish registers in the zone and in the State archive in Como. There is, for example, the story of the Brentano family who made a fortune selling lemons from the lakeside in Germany (they in fact came from Sicily through a network of relatives...); there were the Salice da Campo who instead sold “spina Christi”, a holly that came from the mountains of Ossuccio; there was finally the family of Andrea Cetti, originally from nearby Lenno, who became master of the mint to the emperor Leopold of Germany. All these families, in gratitude to their place of origin, took on the expense of a chapel, some of two (the Brentanos), some of three (the Lettis): and their respective coat of arms are still there to inform pilgrims of philanthropic offerings dating back to the last decades of the seventeenth century.
The sanctuary

The sanctuary

The outcome, though little stressed, is worthy of note: 230 statues, including angels, plus six horses and nine various animals, all visible in stylish but sober chapels, with central groundplan, most with a portico to facilitate view of the tableaux. The art work was supervised by craftsmen highly trained in such complex sites as those of the Sacred Mounts: in particular the role of Agostino Silva, a sculptor from Ticino, the son of the Francesco who had played a leading part of the Sacred Mount of Varese, was fundamental here.
Don’t expect masterpieces like those at Varallo or Cerveno beyond the niche grills of the chapels at Ossuccio. Here the work is that of honest artisans, skilled in rendering grand effects with few means and with little ability. But you can easily find various affecting curiosities. Like the six figures with goitre, witness to how widespread the malady was in a poor population, constrained by necessity to a wretched diet, based almost exclusively on cabbage and void of proteins. Or like the meek sweet face of Mary in the chapel of the Descent of the Holy Spirit.
There are also curious statues, set here and there almost to give a moment of cheer to the tired pilgrims. Imagine, for example, the exclamations of amazement or admiration at the soldiers who seem to participate in the tableaux as if they were parading on the catwalk. Their fine armor, in peculiar in chapel VIII or in that of the Crowning with thorns, seem a little out of place, almost anachronistic. They display their leggings, finely chased, with a touch of vanity. But that’s how it goes in the life, and also how it goes in the tableaux of the Sacred mounts…


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